Sunday 10 March 2013

L'Assedio di Calais - English Touring Opera

Eddie Wade, Helen Sherman and ensemble in L'Assedio di Calais English Touring Opera,  photography Richard Hubert Smith
Eddie Wade, Helen Sherman and ensemble in L'Assedio di Calais
English Touring Opera,  photography Richard Hubert Smith
Donizetti's L'Assedio di Calais was premiered in Naples in 1836, the year after Lucia di Lammermoor was performed there. The work ceased being performed after 1840. It was not revived again until 1990 at the Donizetti Festival in Bergamo, performances at the Wexford Festival followed in 1991. It has been staged twice by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, but English Touring Opera's performance on Saturday 9 March 2013 represented the work's UK professional stage premiere. James Conway directed and Samal Blak designed with Jeremy Silver conducting a strong cast which included Cozmin Sime, Adam Tunnicliffe, Eddie Wade Helen Sherman, Paula Sides and Piotr Lempa.

Donizetti and his librettist Cammarano created a three act work, extremely well crafted which, though written for Italy had one eye on France as Donizetti was keen to have his work performed in Paris. So the piece takes a chunk of French history, includes a ballet in the third act and does not give the leading soprano a place above all others. This is not a work in which we have to suspend disbelief, there are no awkward co-incidences, the soprano neither faints, goes mad nor dies from an excess of joy. Instead we have a terrifically constructed drama about patriotism. So why isn't the opera better known.

Probably because musically, the third act is rather weak. This act introduces two entirely new characters Edoardo (Edward III), King of England and his wife Isabella, there is a long ballet for Isabella's arrival (most of which Donizetti did not write, but left to a lesser composer) and a lieto fine which involves Isabella and leaves the soprano heroine from  acts one and two (Eleonora) in the sidelines. During Donizetti's lifetime the work was performed in Naples with just the first two acts. Donizetti himself seems to have toyed with revising the work and there is a new version, probably written for Venice, which drops the ballet and the character of Isabella and introduces a new rondo finale for Eleonora, which was both dramatically not credible and musically very old fashioned at the time.

There is also another version, whose origins are unclear but which may be the version performed in Naples when they did just two acts. If you just do the first two acts, it works dramatically, but the character of Edoardo does not appear, which would not have pleased the singer. So this version, moves Edoardo's big aria to act 1, and it works rather well. It was this version that ETO chose to perform, with director James Conway explaining the rationale in a lucid article in the programme book. They also moved a further chorus from act 3 to act 2, so that just before they burghers of Calais leave, there is a female chorus to point up what they are sacrificing for.

The plot is quite simple. The opera opens outside the walls, with Aurelio (Helen Sherman) looking for food. He is captured and taunted but escapes. The leader of the English, Edoardo (Cozmin Sime) has a brilliant aria, impatient for victory, and he asks his lieutenant Edmondo (Adam Tunnicliffe) to negotiate with the town and arrange hostages in exchange for sparing the city.

Inside the city Aurelio's father and wife, Eustachio (Eddie Wade) and Eleonora (Paula Sides), are lamenting Aurelio's death. Giovanni d'Aire (Andrew Glover), brings the news that Aurelio is alive. Cue general rejoicing cut short by an angry crowd led by a stranger (Piotr Lempa) wanting to lynch Eustachio, who is leader of the city. Eustachio shows that the stranger is an English spy and the stranger is himself lynched. A quiet scene for Aurelio and Eleonora concludes with the news that the English have agreed terms. 

Then in second act, Edmondo brings the news that the town must supply six burghers as hostages, to allow the others to survive. Aurelio wants to put his name down, but Eustachio insists that he must go, in the end Aurelio puts his name down too. The act (and this version of the opera) ends, with the six men going to what they assume is their death.

Donizetti had casting problems in Naples, and though he thought of Aurelio as a tenor part in fact it was written for a musico, a mezzo-soprano playing a male role; a rather old-fashioned device for the time. This means that the opera has not major tenor role.

Helen Sherman in L'Assedio di Calais (act 1, scene 1) English Touring Opera,  photography Richard Hubert Smith
Helen Sherman in L'Assedio di Calais (act 1, scene 1)
English Touring Opera,  photography Richard Hubert Smith
Conway and Blak set the piece in a bleak landscape inspired by the siege of Leningrad. The sole set was huge concrete drain, which acted as the wall in the first scene and the shelter for the family in the remainder of the opera. Rubbish and detritus strewn around, with a plain back drop which was lit accordingly, the result was bleak and very effective. Blak had clearly had great fun going round the local charity shops finding suitable clothes for the cast. It may have been accident, or deliberate design, but Eleonora was the only cast member in colourful clothes, her turquoise blue coat contrasting with the drab of everyone else.

Helen Sherman, who represented Australia at the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition in 2011, was superb as Aurelio. Dressed in baggy clothes, she looked physically every inch a young man and her demeanour was at all times highly convincing even when being rather physical (such as climbing over the drain). But she also brought to the role a fine, rich mezzo-soprano voice which was nicely even across the (considerable) range and wonderfully flexible when it came to the fioritura. She sang the role with intelligence and bravura, using the fioritura musically and dramatically. I certainly hope that we shall hear more of her in this repertoire, though alas Donizetti did not write that many leading roles for mezzo-sopranos but certainly someone should be looking to cast her as Bellini's Romeo.

Sherman developed a strong and touching relationship with Paula Sides as Aurelio's wife, Eleonora. I have previous experienced Sides as a fine comic actress (Despina, Atalanta in Xerxes), but here she showed her a dramatic side and was visually and vocally almost unrecognisable from her Despina the previous week (see my review of ETO's Cosi fan Tutte). Her voice is quite a slim, lyric one but she brought passion, commitment and intensity to Eleonora's role, and looked the part too. She and Sherman blended beautifully in their duet.

Eustachio plays a major role in the opera, and Eddie Wade was convincing as the upright man struggling at the end of his tether. Wade was sometimes a bit smudgy in the passagework, but he didn't bluster and generally sang with a nice feeling for Donizettian style, whilst creating a believable and involving character. He was well supported by the other smaller roles of the burgers, taken by Andrew Glover, Brendan Collins, Niel Joubert and Matthew Spange. One of the highlights of the opera was the wonderful ensemble for the six men as they prepare to go to meet their doom, which Donizetti opens unaccompanied. Powerful and magical stuff.

Piotr Lempa was strong casting in the role of the stranger who incites the crowd to violence. And Andrew Glover provided strong support as the only burger who really has a substantial independent solo role. As the English besiegers, Cozmin Sime brought brilliance and notable bravura to his act 1 aria, and Adam Tunnicliffe had a nice dramatic intensity as Edmondo.

The chorus was small but very hard working, they and the soloists convincingly portraying a town struggling at the end of a long siege. 

Jeremy Silver conducted with brio, keeping the dramatic tension up but allowing the quieter moments to breathe. There were a couple of rocky moments in ensemble between pit and stage, but these will settle.

The virtue of this production was its concentrate dramatic intensity and the way Conway encouraged the singers to use Donizetti's music to dramatic ends. This was what productions of 19th century bel canto repertoire ought to be.

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